Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Jessica Abel, I

Jessica Abel's La Perdida has just been published in a handsome hardcover edition by Pantheon Books. I've been aware of Abel's work for some time, and have read some of the middle issues of the comic that forms the basis of the novel. Although La Perdida (The Lost One, or The Lost Woman) sounds like it could be a place name, here it actually serves as an adjective that perfectly describes Carla, the book's compelling central character. I've only just finished it, and will post a review when I've given it more thought and have spent more time with it.

Abel was recently interviewed in The Comics Journal (#270 August 2005; excerpts here). She comes across as a thoughtful and interesting artist, and I have to admit I was intrigued and won over by her.

Two things in particular deserve mention:

First of all, she's very much committed to the teaching of cartooning; (the dust-jacket of La Perdida mentions that she's collaborating on a textbook about making comics).

This exchange with Greg Stump from TCJ interview gets to the heart of her deeply-felt point of view:
Stump: The one reason I bring it up is I was talking to Jim Woodring about this, because I teach kids -- not older kids, but little kids. He was talking about James Sturm's new school that's starting up, and he asked me if I would contemplate trying to do something like that ... But he was pretty opposed to the idea that you could teach a cartoonist, or a cartoonist could be taught, and he said it was like saying you could teach someone to be a poet or something like that.

Abel:I absolutely disagree with that point of view. I think it's a really common attitude for cartoonists to have, especially for cartoonists of his generation and older, and even more so for ones who had to go out on their own to do what they wanted to do, because they weren't working for Marvel or DC or whatever. That's what they did, they think that the only way to learn to be a cartoonist is to just flail around until you get someplace or, more likely, don't.

I really disagree. I'm very proud to say that my students do not come out of my class looking like me, none of them have. They come out looking more like themselves. I think I can teach them a lot of stuff. I can't teach them to be artists; I can't teach them the central spark.

Stump: That may be what he was describing.

Abel: I think he's saying you can't teach people -- for example, if you say can't teach people how to be poets. Well, you can actually teach people how to be poets. You can't teach them to be great poets, but you can teach them how to write, how to think, many things about structure, and the concerns that might be in poetry. You can teach them to look at other poems.

Stump: You can certainly expose people to work that's going to transform their understanding...

Abel: That's at a minimum. You can do a lot more than that. You can be taught how to write. You can be taught how to draw. You can teach somebody how to draw from life and how to draw from their imagination. I don't plan to do that, but it can be done. I think saying it can't be taught has a destructive influence on our world of art. It's a bad idea, that everybody has to individually struggle along on their own, and end up wherever they end up. For hundreds of thousands of years, artists have worked as apprentices. It's only in the last 50 that they haven't. And working as an apprentice is learning from the master -- copying, nothing wrong with copying for a while. I don't teach my students as if they're apprentices. I don't have them copy me and just do my grunt work, but I think that's one model for education that works.

You can tell, I'm getting a little heated. I don't like the idea that somebody like Woodring would say that it's a bad idea to teach comics. If somebody had said to me when I was 21, when I knew I wanted to be a cartoonist, "Hey, there's a place where they're good teachers and you could really learn," like James' school, that would have been magic. I don't know if I could have or would have done it in terms of money and so on, but it could have gotten me to where I am now, six years earlier. Why should I suffer? Why should I have to reinvent the wheel over and over again?


Stump: I think he didn't really study so much as he learned when he was working in animation or something like that.

Abel: When he was an apprentice.

Stump: Yeah, exactly, right.

Abel: That's the attitude I'm fighting against. Part of our proposal for our book is specifically addressing that prejudice, and I think it is a prejudice. It's very much the Modernist ideal, the individual artist off in his or her garret struggling alone. That model is destructive and self-destructive. I don't think you come up with better art because of that. The myth is that it's the only way you come up with true, pure art, but I just don't buy it.

Our argument in our pitch for our book is that group learning is the best way. It's not the only way, and we will accommodate people who want to learn on their own, but our emphasis and our push all the way through the book is going to be: If students don't have the opportunity to go to a class with a teacher, encourage them to form groups and work together. Having feedback and having people look at your work and having other minds to help you think through problems, that will get you years ahead. Why struggle when you don't have to?

Why, indeed.

Abel's second winning characteristic, (fully as admirable as the first I mentioned), is her acknowledgement of the influence of Wonder Woman. This section of the interview does not appear in the online excerpt:
Stump: You said that Love and Rockets was one of your first major influences.

Abel: ... Basically, Wonder Woman was my strongest early influence. ... I love Wonder Woman, but I really love Wonder Woman when Charles Moulton was writing her, and Harry Peters was drawing her. [Stump laughs.] Because Harry Peters' drawing style is so fucking weird. It's so awesome.

Stump: I can't picture it in my head at the moment.

Abel: The drawings look like woodcuts. ... Peters' style is crazy weird. Bad anatomy, really enthusiastic and cool and very modernist-looking to me. I really like it, but it's also sort of medieval. ... [M]ost of the early Wonder Woman stuff is meant to prove that women are superior to men. If we only just recognized it in ourselves, we're better than men, which is funny. Wonder Woman's from Paradise Island or whatever, where men aren't even allowed to be at all. There's all these plotlines about women-haters, men who deny women opportunity to achieve academically or whatever because they hate women, they don't think they're worthwhile. So she and her sidekicks from this girls' college go and kick somebody's ass. ... And that's the plot. It's just unbelievably weird. There's one where there's this kind of mentalist guy who creates goop out of the air and makes it turn into George Washington and talk to people.

Stump: You remember these pretty clearly.

Abel: Because I read this one book 18,000 times. I now have this DC collection of early Wonder Woman stuff, which is also excellent. But the collection I've always had is one that Ms. Magazine put out, for obvious reasons, in the early '70s. They're all stories from the '40s, a selection of what Gloria Steinem liked the best. ... My mom or one of her feminist friends gave me the book when I was like four, a little kid. ... It deeply impressed me, and now looking at it as an adult, it impresses me still because it's really inventive and exciting. I have the DC collection of early Superman, and that stuff's fucking boring -- those stories are boring. Wonder Woman stories are not boring. They're fun. That's just a quality-of-writing thing, it's not only because I love Wonder Woman. They're really better stories. They're much more entertaining, and they're drawn better. Unfortunately, DC recolored everything, so they've lost that other thing that got imprinted on me early. The Ms. book is a photographic reproduction of the bad coloring from the '40s. Or maybe they just recolored it badly, I don't know, but it's all off-register and everything that's supposed to be gray is purple and it's weird and awesome. Those things tie in at a basic, four-year-old level in my aesthetics.

These are but a small helping of the insights contained in Abel's interview, which I've been re-reading and working through since August. (For those so inspired, back issues of The Comics Journal are available, here.)

You can join Jessica Abel's ass-kicking Artbabe Army, here.

I'm so happy to read someone else fangirling about Jessica Abel.

She's rad. Anyone who disagrees sucks.
Absolutely no arguments from me, Serene.
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